Flight to fame

Milkha Singh, an or­phan who was dis­placed dur­ing In­dia’s Par­ti­tion, rose to be­come one of the great­est ath­letes In­dia has ever seen. Af­ter fad­ing into the shad­ows, the Fly­ing Sikh is now back in the lime­light af­ter his biopic hit the big screen, says Arch

Friday - - Inside -

H is voice was weak but his words were in­sis­tent: “Run, Milkha, run.” Ly­ing in a pool of blood, wait­ing for death, Sam­pu­ran Singh pleaded with his shocked 12-year-old son to flee. “If you stay, they will get you,’’ he stam­mered.

Milkha had just re­turned home from school in Lyallpur, now in western Pak­istan, to find that most of his fam­ily of im­pov­er­ished farm­ers had been mer­ci­lessly mas­sa­cred in the ri­ots that were con­tin­u­ing in In­dia and Pak­istan af­ter the Par­ti­tion of the Sub­con­ti­nent in 1947. Too young to un­der­stand why the toxic typhoon of ha­tred was sweep­ing the Sub­con­ti­nent, Milkha was be­wil­dered to find that two of his sis­ters, a brother and his mother had been killed. Not sure whether to obey his dy­ing fa­ther’s last words to flee, or to stay and help him, Milkha, con­fused, be­wil­dered and over­whelmed, looked around for help. But all he could see was a mob bay­ing for blood rac­ing to­wards his home. Milkha gave one last teary-eyed look at his dy­ing fa­ther then be­gan run­ning.

“I re­ally don’t know how many kilo­me­tres I must have run that day,’’ re­calls the now sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian and an icon of In­dian ath­let­ics. Through forests and past streams, Milkha kept run­ning

and hours later, stum­bled on to a rail­way sta­tion where a train, packed with flee­ing refugees from Pak­istan, was pre­par­ing to chug out. The young boy sneaked into the women’s com­part­ment and hid un­der a pile of bod­ies that had been dumped in it.

“I thought I would be safe there,’’ he says, talk­ing ex­clu­sively to Fri­day. Ex­hausted from weep­ing for the loss of his loved ones, stunned by the mag­ni­tude of de­struc­tion around him and scared for his own life, Milkha fell asleep on the train that took him to Delhi in In­dia.

“To this day, I find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that I sur­vived the hor­rors of Par­ti­tion. I reached Delhi home­less, pen­ni­less and with no one to call my own,” says Milkha, 78, who af­ter bask­ing in the lime­light decades ago as a star ath­lete is now back mak­ing head­lines thanks to his biopic, which has cap­tured In­dia’s imag­i­na­tion. Star­ring ac­claimed ac­tor di­rec­tor Farhan Akhtar, the film BhaagMilkha bhaag (Run, Milkha run) is an elo­quent por­trayal of young Milkha’s rise from an or­phan to be­come one of In­dia’s best known sportsper­sons who missed an Olympic medal by a whisker at the 1960 Rome Games. It also lays bare the con­flicts he had with his in­ner de­mons and how he slayed all of them to stand tall in sport. The film, which earned com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal ac­claim, was re­cently ad­judged one of the five best Bol­ly­wood movies of 2013 by crit­ics and the film fra­ter­nity. “My phone has not stopped ring­ing since the film was re­leased,’’ he says. “I am get­ting hun­dreds of con­grat­u­la­tory calls from all over the world.”

Those calls in­cluded one from Amer­i­can sprinter Carl Lewis. “Yes, Carl Lewis called me,’’ says Milkha, from his mod­est house in the north In­dian city of Chandigarh.

“He told me that a friend had acted as in­ter­preter trans­lat­ing the di­a­logue in the Hindi movie for him. I was over­whelmed to get Carl’s call.’’

Al­though it gar­nered crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess, the movie nar­rowly

missed be­ing se­lected as In­dia’s en­try for the Os­cars. “But that hardly mat­ters,’’ says its star Farhan Akhtar. Au­di­ences loved it and got an insight into one of the he­roes of sport, he says – a suc­cess story that’s all the more in­cred­i­ble given Milkha’s trau­matic past.

The early days

Af­ter stum­bling off the train in Delhi, Milkha lived in a refugee camp set up by the gov­ern­ment for those dis­placed by the Par­ti­tion.

There, he met a rel­a­tive who sug­gested that Milkha join the army so he would be able to make a life of his own. Sign­ing up for the In­dian Army at the age of 16, he soon found ath­let­ics – or rather ath­let­ics found him.

“It was dur­ing the com­pul­sory cross-coun­try run for new re­cruits, in which I came sixth, that my se­niors recog­nised my po­ten­tial as an ath­lete and de­cided to train me along with the other top run­ners for na­tional and in­ter­na­tional level com­pe­ti­tions,” he says.

‘The clear su­pe­ri­or­ity of oth­ers shocked me but at the same time it in­spired me. I knew I had to im­prove my tech­nique’

Milkha soon found joy in run­ning, not only be­cause the stren­u­ous rou­tine helped heal his emo­tional scars, but be­cause it re­minded him of his time in his vil­lage.

“I was a nat­u­ral run­ner. My school was about 10km from home and ev­ery day my friends and I would race to school. I used to run bare­foot be­cause my fam­ily was too poor to af­ford shoes for me. In the peak of sum­mer when the tem­per­a­ture would touch 50°C, we would run for a while, stop to cool our feet on a patch of grass be­fore sprint­ing off again.”

It was the same rou­tine on the way back from school. “Run­ning 20km a day was no mean feat but it built up my stamina,’’ he says. How­ever, he did not have the chance to pur­sue run­ning as a sport as the school lacked a sup­port sys­tem to train ath­letes.

Once in the In­dian Army, Milkha be­gan to ex­cel in ath­let­ics and soon medals and tro­phies for 200m as well as 400m races be­gan to line his shelves. He showed his prow­ess for the first time at the Ser­vices Ath­letic Meet 1955 where he fin­ished sec­ond in the 200m and 400m. But it was his win at the 400m event at the 1956 Na­tional Games in Pa­tiala that put the spot­light on him and he set his sights on the big­gest sport­ing event of all – the Olympics.

“I – and In­dia – had high hopes when I be­gan pre­par­ing for the 1956 Olympics in Mel­bourne,’’ says Milkha. But his hopes were dashed when he was elim­i­nated in the first round. “The clear su­pe­ri­or­ity of the oth­ers shocked me but at the same time it in­spired me. I knew I had to im­prove my tech­nique.’’

De­ter­mined to bounce back, Milkha asked Charles Jenk­ins, an Amer­i­can run­ner who went on to win two gold medals that year, if he could share his train­ing meth­ods with him. Charles drew up a de­tailed chart for Milkha, giv­ing tips on diet and ex­er­cise that Milkha says changed his life. “Charles was the one who in­spired me af­ter which I just trained re­lent­lessly,’’ he says. “I used to sweat buck­ets and con­tinue.’’

There were sev­eral oc­ca­sions when Milkha passed out on the track from ex­haus­tion and

the strain of prac­tis­ing for hours un­der the sun, run­ning up moun­tains, rac­ing against speed­ing trains. “I re­mem­ber doc­tors telling me that I was putting my life in dan­ger be­cause of my stren­u­ous prac­tice ses­sions,’’ he says. “But I did not stop. I would tell my­self that I would never be an also-ran. I vowed to do what­ever it took to be the best in the world.’’

The year 1958 be­longed to Milkha. In his first ap­pear­ance at an Asian Games event – the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo – he won golds at 200m and 400m. The same year he got in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s first gold medal in an ath­letic event at a Com­mon­wealth Games when he won the 400m race in Cardiff, Wales. He also re­ceived a Pad­mashri award, the fourth-high­est civil­ian award in In­dia.

The Tokyo Asian Games, how­ever, re­mains spe­cial to Milkha be­cause, “It was here that I met Pak­istani sprinter Ab­dul Khaliq.’’

The two had won in­di­vid­ual medals – Ab­dul for the 100m and Milkha for the 400m. But for the first time the two stars would com­pete against each other for the 200m gold – a race that would go into his­tory books for its heart­stop­ping fi­nale. “The race be­gan in earnest but just at the fin­ish line, I pulled a mus­cle in my left leg. I was in pain and my left shoul­der lurched for­ward. It was a photo fin­ish, but be­cause I had lurched for­ward, I won the race. Ab­dul Khaliq came sec­ond,’’ he says.

Pak­istan took note of Milkha – as the man who beat their own star Ab­dul.

In 1960, when In­dia was pre­par­ing to send a team to the Rome Olympics, the se­lec­tors did not have to look far. Milkha was the first choice and was billed as In­dia’s first in­di­vid­ual medal hope­ful. “I had trained hard and my per­for­mance at in­ter­na­tional meets had filled me with con­fi­dence to take on the world.’’

De­jected by de­feat

Milkha’s eyes glaze over when he re­mem­bers the fi­nals for the his­toric 400m race in Rome, Italy. “Ini­tially, I was pretty much in con­trol of my emo­tions even when I en­tered the sta­dium. But the mo­ment I saw my ri­vals, ten­sion mounted in me.

“I was on lane five with South African Mal­colm Spence on my left and Ger­man Man­fred Kinder on my right,” he re­calls. “The mo­ment the start­ing pis­tol shot was fired, I took off. I was go­ing strong for about 250m and lead­ing the field. But then, think­ing I would not be able to sus­tain the pace un­til the end, I de­cided to save my en­ergy for the fi­nal burst and slowed down a bit. At that point I guess I even looked back.’’

It was that frac­tion of a sec­ond that would de­cide Milkha’s fate. “In that mi­crosec­ond, they all caught up with me – Spence, Kauf­mann and Davis. Be­fore I re­alised it, it was all over.”

Milkha came fourth, miss­ing a bronze by a mil­lisec­ond and what would have been in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s first in­di­vid­ual Olympic medal in ath­let­ics. “That frac­tion of a sec­ond cost me a spot on the vic­tory stand,’’ he says. “Af­ter the death of my par­ents, that is my worst mem­ory. I kept cry­ing for days. The one medal I had yearned for through­out my ca­reer had slipped through my fin­gers be­cause of one small er­ror of judge­ment. I had no in­ter­est left in any­thing. I felt af­ter years of dom­i­nat­ing the sport the de­cline had set in,” says Milkha.

De­jected by de­feat, he de­cided to give up sport for­ever. “Noth­ing and no­body could change my mind. I was so frus­trated,’’ he says.

The same year, 1960, Gen­eral Ayub Khan, the then mil­i­tary head of Pak­istan, in­vited Milkha to run once again against Ab­dul Khaliq. “But I de­clined,’’ he says. How­ever, his coaches Ran­bir Singh and JS Saini were re­luc­tant to let their star ath­lete waste away. They kept en­cour­ag­ing him and per­suad­ing him to re­turn to the field. Fi­nally Pandit Jawa­har­lal Nehru, In­dia’s then Prime Min­is­ter, sug­gested he should get back into the sport and take up Ayub Khan’s of­fer.

“I re­mem­ber meet­ing Pandit Nehru at his res­i­dence in Delhi,” re­calls Milkha. “I was not keen to go, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of the sad ex­pe­ri­ences I had en­dured [in Pak­istan]. But he in­sisted, say­ing that he be­lieved such sport­ing meets were the only way to for­get the past and forge a brand new fu­ture.”

So the star run­ner set off to Pak­istan to race against Ab­dul.

More than 7,000 peo­ple had gath­ered to watch the race at the sta­dium in La­hore. Gen­eral Ayub Khan was also there. The race started with Ab­dul in the lead but with just 50m to the fin­ish line, Milkha over­took him to breast the tape.

‘Nehru be­lieved that sport­ing meets were the only way to for­get the past and forge a brand new fu­ture’

“The en­tire sta­dium was silent,’’ re­mem­bers Milkha. “And I felt elated as I was back on the vic­tory stand af­ter a long time.’’

When the time came to award the medals, Gen­eral Ayub bent and whis­pered in Milkha’s ear, “You didn’t run to­day, you flew.’’ Thus the moniker Fly­ing Sikh – which Milkha is bet­ter known as – was born.

Two years later, Milkha won two medals at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta – one for his in­di­vid­ual per­for­mance in the quar­ter mile race and the other as a part of 4x400m re­lay.

The same year he mar­ried the love of his life and cap­tain of In­dia’s vol­ley­ball team, Nir­mal Kaur. The two had been court­ing for seven years but had de­cided to put their re­la­tion­ship

on the back burner just so that they could fo­cus on their sport­ing ca­reers.

But none of th­ese vic­to­ries, recog­ni­tions and per­sonal mile­stones could heal the pain of that Olympic loss.

“My mis­take at Rome will ran­kle in my heart un­til my last breath,” he says. “I still feel the pain. I had trained for 12 months, and when you lose af­ter putting in so much ef­fort, it causes ir­repara­ble dam­age. I can never for­get that mo­ment. Ev­ery­one thought I would win gold, but I could not even bring home bronze.”

In­spi­ra­tional not sen­sa­tional

In an at­tempt to slay the de­mons of his tu­mul­tuous past and find clo­sure, Milkha wrote his first au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Fly­ing Sikh Milkha

Singh. Re­leased in 1977, the book was in his mother tongue, Pun­jabi, and it gen­er­ated a lot of in­ter­est not only among the au­di­ence but among the film-mak­ers as well.

“Many of them of­fered me a lot of money for the copy­right of the book but I didn’t sell it,” Milkha says. “I wanted to work with a film­maker who would make an in­spir­ing film, not one that was merely sen­sa­tional.

“So when my son Jeev Milkha Singh [a cel­e­brated golfer] sug­gested Rakeysh Om­prakash Mehra’s name, I agreed as he was known for his hon­est cin­ema.”

The Fly­ing Sikh, how­ever, had a con­di­tion – 10 per cent of the film’s earn­ings would go to the Milkha Singh Char­i­ta­ble Trust, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­vides med­i­cal care to re­tired sports per­sons who can’t af­ford it.

The film took four years to come to­gether, years in which Farhan Akhtar ob­served Milkha’s man­ner­isms on and off the field and trained re­lent­lessly to look like an in­ter­na­tional ath­lete. In those years Milkha, along with his daugh­ter So­nia San­walka, wrote another au­to­bi­og­ra­phy The Race ofMy Life. This book was in English and it was launched just af­ter the re­lease of the film.

BhaagMilkha Bhaag, which was re­leased in July 2013, went on to gross more than Rs1 bil­lion (about Dh60 mil­lion) at the box of­fice. “When I saw the film, I cried. I con­grat­u­lated Farhan Akhtar, who was sit­ting next to me, and told him, ‘Beta, you are a du­pli­cate copy of Milkha Singh.’”

Al­though in his sev­en­ties, Milkha still main­tains his ex­er­cise rou­tine. He jogs at least 3km three times a week, reg­u­larly works out in a gym and en­joys play­ing a game of golf and shoot­ing the breeze with friends.

“I avoid old men,” he says. “They are al­ways com­plain­ing about life and its prob­lems. I would rather spend my time with young peo­ple talk­ing about the good things in life.”

So, is he happy with the way his life has panned out?

“I won sev­eral medals for In­dia al­though I missed an Olympic one. I am lead­ing a healthy life now. God has been very kind to me. What more can I ask for?” he says.

Milkha in ac­tion in France in 1960. Farhan Akhtar, right, por­trays him on the big screen

Milkha is happy with the movie of his life and hopes it is in­spi­ra­tional

Farhan Akhtar trained hard to play Milkha in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Milkha, cen­tre, with film-maker Rakeysh Om­prakash Mehra, left, and ac­tor Farhan Akhtar

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